I AM SAM
One minute he's
kissing Hugo Weaving, the next he's espousing the pleasures of drinking wine
and smoking cigarettes. Daphne Guinness meets the laid-back - and loud - Sam
Sam Neill is not ashamed to admit that he smokes three
cigarettes a day and does not intend to give them up. "I have a glass of
wine before dinner, I light up a fag and enjoy it immensely." And the
other two? "After dinner but not always. To be honest, I have one after
breakfast because a man needs to be regular at my age. It's better than bran -
I making myself clear?"
Absolutely. To me and everyone else in the bar at the swanky
W Hotel in Sydney. He is positively
shouting - something he says he never does. "But there are times with
one's children you want to shout, though of course it's counterproductive, so
you may as well forget it. Anyway, they don't take any notice. So why
It's 10am. Neill
tosses his Hermes coat onto a chair and, in shirt sleeves and cords, tells the
hovering PR, "I'll have a latte, toast and jam. Haven't had breakfast, I'm
hungry." Then he throws himself on the sofa and examines the glass-top
coffee table. "We could play chess or backgammon." (I've been warned
that he's slow to start but once warmed up, lets rip.)
We're here to discuss not only his role in Little Fish - the new Australian flick
also starring Cate Blanchett in which he plays a seedy, conniving criminal -
but also Sam Neill the average bloke, Sam Neill the husband, Sam Neill the
father and Sam Neill the winemaker.
So why no breakfast? "I've been terribly busy."
But what does he do in the morning? "Well, I go for my walk. A walk three
or four times a week keeps me OK." This contradicts an interview in 2000
where he says he goes to the gym every day: "I do 35 to 40 minutes on the
runner, some weights, lots of stretching. I feel like a slug if I don't."
Something doesn't add up. Oh that, he says, caught out but
not caring, "I used to go to the gym as a fanciful anthropological
exercise. It was very intriguing from an actor's point of view but I'm not big
on pumping iron."
Actors. How do you know if they're telling the truth? "Don't
believe everything you read in the papers," he warns (implying, take care).
"He's an in-the-zone actor," says Fish's director
Rowan Woods. "He becomes the character yet still keeps his radar going
elsewhere. Nobody I have worked with has this ability." Another warning.
Anyway, what's this about Hugo Weaving, who plays a gay,
drug-addled ex-football champion, kissing him in Little Fish? In fact, there are two kisses. Weaving giving. Neill
"I dreaded it and it opened my eyes once again to the
kindness of women, that they actually put up with that disgusting bristly
presence. How do you do it? Hugo had a beard and in an unkind moment, I said it
was like kissing the rear end of an alsatian. My heart went out to Hugo's wife.
I told her that she has sacrificed beyond the normal demands
of connubial obligations."
At which point I say (and I wish I hadn't), "Why not
kiss me, then I'd know how it felt?"
"Well, I am shaven, civilised and a totally different
prospect from Hugo." So he's declining my offer? "Yes, I've been
turned by Hugo," he says, cackling at his joke.
I plough on. How does he get on with his children? He has
Tim, 22, with Lisa Harrow the actress whom I am not allowed to discuss,
Elena, 15, with his wife, Noriko Watanabe, and Maiko, her 23-year-old daughter.
"You'll have to ask them," he says defensively. "I think of
myself as a reasonably good dad. Oh good..." In a classic awkward-moment
breaker, breakfast arrives. "They've given me sourdough. I'd hate to be
allergic to wheat because bread is one of the great pleasures of life and it's
a great vehicle for jam," delivering the word theatrically. So he is a jam
man. "Mmmmmm, yes, I love it. My favourite is dark bitter marmalade."
His monologue usage is well-honed to deflect tricky topics.
It simply won't do. I return to his children. For instance, Jeremy Irons did a
film with his son - would Neill? He goes into a long Pinteresque silence, then,
"I'd never encourage or discourage. It's a cruel profession. However
successful, your life is littered with bad reviews and rejections by producers."
That's awfully bleak for a man who starred in the aptly titled My Brilliant Career as well as Jurassic Park and The Piano. "No, that's a fact. You need a thick skin to get
through. I rather like tenderness and vulnerability in people." So he has
lost that? "I hope not entirely." He still has it, then? "Who
knows? That's not for me to say." (I could kill him. Everyone raves about
his charm but no one mentions his irritating modesty.)
His own childhood is an open book. His parents, Dermot and
Priscilla, were British ("My DNA is Irish but I am a fourth-generation New
Zealander") and they weren't a demonstrably affectionate family. "But
we loved each other in our own ways" - the stutter he had as a boy returns
- "and there's a lot to be said for being the middle child. People don't
notice you so much."
Yet when I ask what kind of a husband he is, he responds
with another infuriating, "Oh, that's not for me to say." But he must
know whether he's good, bad or indifferent. He's been married for 16 years to Watanabe, a Japanese make-up artist whom he met
on the film Dead Calm. He was so
smitten, he told one magazine, "I followed her around like a pathetic dog
for months, hoping she'd throw me a bone." Now he says feebly, "I'm
probably all right," munching his toast. Does this conversation make him
nervous? "Solicitous." To his eternal shame, he admits, he speaks no
Japanese, not even "I love you." "You'd think a more
conscientious man would be fluent by now," he concedes, "but nah!"
One of the odd things about him is when he's not acting, he
doesn't miss it, not even the attention. "That's because I am busy with my
organic farm in New Zealand.
We have rare-breed chickens, South-Suffolk black-faced sheep, a goat, three
vineyards." He rattles on about lavender honey, lavender oil, rosewater,
thyme oil, saffron and "the nice people who work for me pick the crocuses
Yes but physically, how much is he involved? "Sometimes
I get to mow around the trees. That's my contribution." He talks to the
Those vineyards, in Central Otago on
the South Island, seem as important as any acting. To
her astonishment, he orders the film PR to make a note of his wine tasting in Sydney
next month. "You know, make sure the right people are there." He
urges me to check his website, www.twopaddocks.com. "It's me taking the
piss out of myself - something I do for fun." A July entry reads, "We
hear the BBC's [miniseries starring Neill] To
The Ends Of The Earth has been screened to some acclaim over the summer. We
can only assume this is due to the distinguished work of Benedict Cumberbatch,
Cheryl Campbell, Victoria Hamilton, Jared Harris, Charles Dance, et ai, rather
than that of the Proprietor. Who, it seems, is playing himself in the William
Goldingwritten trilogy; that is, foul-tempered old curmudgeon with obnoxious
politics, crap taste in hats, etc."
There are even photos of the "Two Paddocks mobile"
on the site. "I've just done up a new truck, a 1947 Chevrolet, the most
beautiful thing in the world." His business radar is buzzing.
But he seems incapable of accepting compliments gracefully.
To those who describe him as intelligent, he retaliates, "Were they all on
drugs when they said that? Oh God, the only time I ever think about myself is
doing interviews. It's an uncomfortable process. I'm much more interested in
other people. For instance, last night I had dinner with my friend George
Gregan, the Wallabies captain. A couple of hours in his company is better than
an hour in mine. Do you see what I am saying?" There it is again that
Gregan, training at NSW's Coffs
Harbour, laughs. They met in 1998
at the airport. Neill, on his way to watch the Wallabies play the All Blacks in
New Zealand, bumped into Gregan at the luggage carousel. He had no ticket.
Gregan organised it and they've been pals ever since. "He can strike up a
conversation with anyone," says Gregan. "It's a special quality that
Sam has. What's amusing is we'll have a good evening with the actor Bryan
Brown, who's pretty vocal. It's boisterous to the last but Sam keeps that Mr
Cool demeanour, while Bryan's the
complete opposite. It's kind of quirky."
Is Neill really 57? He looks 10 years younger. He's 58 next
week, actually. "Am I that old? I'm shocked." Did he go through a
midlife crisis? "I hope I'm not midlife yet." So no men's problems?
"Touch wood, no. But my mother died a few years ago and had dementia
towards the end. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. She was 84." So he's a
candidate? "I suppose so." It's the only sombre moment in the
interview but he rallies. No, he doesn't mind greying hair and, yes, he shaves
every day. His father, an army officer, made his men shave even if there was no
water. "They dry-shaved because it was good for morale and I agree with
Neill is still good-looking. Naturally, he disagrees. Oddly,
though, on the box getting his Silver Logie award in May for most outstanding
actor in the TV drama Jessica, he
didn't look too whoops. And presenting Rove McManus with his Gold Logie, he
fluffed his words. Can he remember that?
He thinks hard. "I fluffed my own Logie because I was
astonished to get it but was the second just one incompetence after
another?" Actually, he looked as though he'd had too much pinot noir (his
favourite wine and the mainstay of his vineyard). This brings on loud guffaws.
If there's one thing Neill doesn't worry about it's his image. "I'm always
being told to shut up because I don't really care what people think. Actually,
when I say that, it's more bravado, really. I'd much sooner be liked than
loathed." He is backing Labour in the current New
Zealand elections "and I know I'll get
hell for that, too."
Well, if anyone has the oomph to stir things, he does.
Wealth, four homes worldwide, 50 films, umpteen television roles and success in
Hollywood suggest an element of
brute ambition. "Brute ambition! What an amazing phrase. For me it's que
sera, sera, as Dean Martin would say."
And what amazing shoes. I have just noticed them. Huge
plonkers in suede with rubber wraparound soles. "Let me tell you about
these shoes." He hitches a foot onto his knee and we both examine it
closely. "They are American, about three feet wide and I can't imagine a
more comfortable shoe. You can climb a mountain or go clubbing in them, not
that these things I do. No, I won't take one off. Not in mixed company."
As for security, does it come from his job or home? He is
flummoxed. Well, is he fidgety when he's not working? "I am, actually,
yes. That's pathetic insecurity. If I know what the next jobs are, that's security.
I don't right now so I'm fidgety."
The PR is back. "Ten-minute warning," she blasts.
So it's quick-quick from now on. How often has he been in love?
"Pass." Does he fall in love easily? "In the past, yeah."
Is he self-righteous? "No. Tolerance is important." Is he impatient?
"With fools and scoundrels." Would he watch someone load the
dishwasher and then say they've done it badly? "No, I'd encourage someone
to load the dishwasher." Obviously he thinks he is a pretty wonderful
person, I say, and that sends him off again into paroxysms.
"Ab-so-lute-ly, I am the bee's knees. Of course not.
I'm as flawed and as fallible as anyone else." Well, he should know, he is
blessed with this insight of himself. "Hahahahahahaha! You're very
contentious. I'm terrified what the tenor of this interview will be when it's
on the page. I'm going to look like some kind of puffed-up bloody guru!"
Actually, he doesn't. Mid-photo shoot and performing a
frenzied mime of being frozen naked in his 1981 horror movie Possession, he looks like a man who can
act his way through anything. Even interviews.